While the Non-Religious Demographic Grows in England and Wales, Ireland Remains a Very Catholic Country

After the release of the UK’s 2011 Census data and the promising growth of the self-identified non-religious, I thought I’d see how our friends over the Irish Sea were getting on. Their census was published way back in March and isn’t quite as promising as the UK results. Christianity and Catholicism in particular is still the dominant religion in Ireland: A whopping 90.47% identify as Christian with 84.16% of the total population being Catholic. The second largest Christian group is the Church of Ireland, representing just 2.81% of the population. In spite of the countless instances of child abuse that have rocked Ireland more than any other European country, people still feel either obligated or proud to call themselves Catholic.

It’s not all doom and gloom, however. The numbers of people identifying themselves as non-religious grew by 44% to just under 270,000 people.

The downside is that, even when grouped with those who didn’t answer the question, the percentage of non-religious (and non-responding) people is still only 7.63%. Much like the UK’s data, one wonders how many of the people who instead chose any of the more popular answers still actually attend church. There is a growing belief that these numbers aren’t telling the whole story. It makes you wonder if a similar strategy to the one used by the FFRF to persuade people to abandon the Church would have much of an effect.

Ireland has always been seen as a Catholic country,  a lot of people may feel some kind of obligation to check the Catholic box even though they do not attend church services simply out of the notion of being culturally Catholic. I, for one, struggle to see what could possibly weaken the Vatican’s grip on Ireland, if the huge sexual abuse scandal didn’t do it then I don’t even want to try and imagine what even worse scandal would be needed to force people to leave en masse. The 44% growth in the non-religious is encouraging, but Ireland has a long way to go.

About Mark Turner

Mark Turner was born and raised as a Catholic in the North East of England, UK. He attended two Catholic schools between the ages of five and sixteen. A product of a moderate Catholic upbringing and an early passion for science first resulted in religious apathy and by mid-teens outright disbelief.


  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=553145445 Gordon Duffy

    I know that a lot of people complained around census time that their parents put them down as Catholic regardless of whether they were or not. 84% Catholic? Not likely. 

  • Brian Scott

    It may be that the Vatican is losing power there even as the census numbers remain consistent, because, as you say, being “Catholic” is now more about culture and identity than about theology and fealty to the Pope.

  • ortcutt

    Religion in Ireland is so bound up with nationalism and sectarianism that it’s hard to conclude much from this about religiosity or belief per se. 

  • http://twitter.com/Humanisticus Humanisticus

    Ireland is nowhere near as religious as the census figures seem to indicate. It’s is mostly just cultural. People simply put down Catholic on the census and baptise their children out of tradition rather than any other reason. Especially among people of my generation and younger (28). The Irish attitude is simply to accept the status quo and go with the flow.

    To give you a perfect example of this, 14% of Irish Catholics do not accept the divinity of Jesus, and if you find that shocking, 7% of Irish Catholics do not believe in God.

    The statistics represent a lazy attitude to change rather than religiosity.

  • WoodyTanaka

    It reminds me of Dara O’Biain talking about being atheist but “ethnically Catholic.”

  • http://twitter.com/Humanisticus Humanisticus

    Yeah, he pretty much got it spot on.

  • girl

    The figures in Northern Ireland were gathered in a misleading way.


    It makes me wonder if something similar happened in the Republic of Ireland.

  • http://nadiawilliams.wordpress.com/ Nadia Williams

    I have lived in Ireland for going on eight years now, and I can count the number of Catholics I’ve met who really are Catholic on the fingers of one hand. People are Catholic because that’s what you are when you’re Irish. 

    You have to understand that historically, suppression of Catholicism went hand in hand with the opression the country lived under for around eight hundred years. After the country became independent, I am told nobody was interested in helping the decimated little island, recovering from a bloody civil war, with developing infrastructure… except the RCC. They built schools, provided education, organised charities. So there are some who keep identifying as Catholic because of a sense of loyalty.

    It’s extremely rare to find anyone who opposes birth control, rights for non-heterosexuals, etc. etc. 

    In the country (as opposed to big towns and cities), you still get a lot of genuine Catholics who take their religion seriously. I think they are the minority. 

    There’s a joke that a guy was once asked: “Are you Catholic, or Protestant?” 
    “I’m an atheist,” he replied.
    “Yes, but are you a Catholic atheist or a Protestant atheist?” As much as it’s intended to be humorous, it perfectly describes what “Catholic” and “Protestant” means in this country. 

    An atheist friend of mine still refers to himself as a Catholic, and to a mutual, also atheist, friend as a Protestant. It just has nothing to do with believing in God any more. In practice, this is a very secular country, but there’s still a lot of detritus from the previous reverence of the RCC in all things, and unfortunately, the politicians are for the most part older, and the older generation is more religious.

    Being Catholic is mostly about culture. Non-religious friends who choose not to baptise their kids seldom if ever report reactions relating to “Oh, no, the child is going to hell!” Instead, it’s almost universally: “The child is going to feel left out.” This is a legitimate concern, because first communion and confirmation are big business here, and incorporated into school activities.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Sandy-Kokch/100000074576649 Sandy Kokch

    The RCC has a strangle hold on the education systems in Eire, and the kid are taught from day one that Catholicism is part of their national identity. That is then expanded through the struggle for independence and the barricades of 1916 blah blah blah…

    That is why the country remains in the thrall to a church that has been shown to be a kiddy fiddlers facilitation club.

    It is changing, but the day when the MIBs are sent packing is a good few generations away.

  • http://www.bartontees.com/ Barton Tees

     Was about to mention this. Sure it’s anecdotal evidence, but I remember broadsheet.ie putting up lots of twitter messages etc. along the lines of “WTF Ma? I don’t believe in God but she put it on the census anyway” and “ah…I had to put down catholic, my ma woulda killed me otherwise”

    Essentially what I’m saying is that for many young Irish people it’s not a fear of their Father in heaven that drives then but a fear of their Mother in Navan.